12 November 2008

In Praise of Little Ideas

While it is true that there are plenty of science fiction authors who are writerly, whose language shows signs of care beyond the bare need to tell the story, it is nonetheless the case that most of such literature is read for the ideas. A good number of these ideas are conventional, a well-worn path the experienced reader of science fiction uses to get up to speed on whatever it is the author is about to do that's new.

Though I might appreciate The Big Idea in many of these books as a way to generate a story or to work out the idea, an awful lot of the time I don't consider The Big Idea terribly plausible. From time to time, however, I do run across a Little Idea — a one-off or a minor point — that strikes me as either absolutely true or a Really Good Idea.

For example, in one book, the title of which I cannot even remember, is a scene in a giant space ship several kilometers in length. Charlie Stross has convinced me that travel between solar systems is monumentally impractical, as much magic as dragons and rings of power. In any case, in this book the computing subsystems all over the ship were a pain in the ass to deal with because they were all kept on isolated networks. It turns out most of the ship's computers were riddled with viruses and couldn't be connected safely. This, sadly, strikes me as all too likely, should it ever happen that we have a legitimate reason to build such ships.

In Vernor Vinge's most recent book, Rainbows End, he makes occasional mention of the "Friends of Privacy," an organization that produces lots of false information about people all over the internet, with the goal of concealing people who want a little privacy in a world of ubiquitous online presence and data recording. This seems to me at least a possible development, and, frankly, given the growth of the participatory panopticon, a desirable one.

I have recently been reading Neal Stephenson's latest tome, Anathem. Because it's Neal Stephenson book it has quite a few Big Ideas. You can read the overview at the link, but the main point I'm interested in here is the world of this book, scholars are sequestered away in things quite like convents — here called "concents" — while the outside world goes on without them. Once a year doors are opened which allow those inside and those outside to mingle for about a week. Within the concents populations are sequestered from each other, too, so that the "centenarians," for example, only encounter the outside world once every hundred years. Within the concents people select different specialties — physics, philosophy, math, etc. One brilliant Little Idea mentioned a few times in passing and with a minor role late in the book is the order known as the Lorites,

Lorite: A member of an Order founded by Saunt [< Savant — Wm] Lora, who believed that all of the ideas that the human mind was capable of coming up with had already been come up with. Lorites are, therefore, historians of thought who assist other avout in their work my making them aware of others who have thought similar things in the past, and thereby preventing them from re-inventing the wheel.

People who've spent a lot of time with me have heard me complain that the field of computer science seems so consistently and utterly ignorant of its own intellectual past. This is a field that desperately needs Lorites. Granted, about half of the time our CS Lorites would be saying one of three things — (1) Lisp did this in 1960-mumble; (2) Alan Kay's group did this in 1970-mumble; or (3) MULTICS — but there'd still be plenty of work for them. Lots of fields of study could probably use a Lorite or two in the department. It would certainly save wasted paper on pointless dissertations and books.